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Flaming Creatures


The turbulent life of Harry Smith
Jonas Mekas Film-maker
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He lived at Chelsea Hotel where I lived for some good number of years. We were around the corner and he always had visitors, like, he was very close to Allen Ginsberg, Corso... Gregory Corso was always there and very often I could smell what they were smoking right in my room. Sometimes I... real smoke used to come in, they used to set mattresses on fire and there were fireman coming in. And he was a very heavy drinker during the time that I met and used to... wherever at night, like usual late night, if he walks with somebody, he sees a fire alarm handle he goes and pulls it down, and therefore then fire alarm. Until I think he befriended... Barbara Rubin befriended him and... and somebody by the name Rosebud... by the name Rosebud. I don't know her real name, you were around too... I mean, I'm talking to Amy Taubin. Yes, she befriended or they befriended him, they really admired him and decided to save him from drinking and all that trouble, that he was almost every night going to jail and... and they managed. I don't know how they did it. He stopped drinking, or at least reduced to drinking to minimum. I mean, his diet was very, very strange, when we moved into Anthology Film Archives, we purchased the building in '79, but we opened to the people only in late '78, that means in '88... that means for like eight, nine years we were renovating.

For the first few years we had no heat, no nothing and he had no... Harry Smith had no place to live. He lived in various... on the Bowery with friends, for some time he lived in some hotel, he had too many problems there, so I gave him during all his days, for like two years he spent, I gave him a room; it became his sort of working space where he moved in with his drawings and and stuff and he used to come like everybody at nine o'clock, though we never keep such strict, you know, at Anthology, rules. He used to come because he, you know... he cannot... he did not like his... that was the period he was staying on the Bowery somewhere next to William Burroughs place and actually it was William Burroughs that got him that little place there on the Bowery, together with others bums practically, and he was not in very good health, Harry, already. And he used to come and stay until we all leave and he leaves also like signing in and signing out and there... and very cold, we were all with gloves, mittens all the time, with tips cut off so that we can type and so he spent and when that... when he, of course, died later, he left all his materials at Anthology, hundreds and hundreds of boxes of materials. That is Harry who is definitely, if one can use a word, genius as once Robert Frank said, 'I have never met geniuses in my life except one, Harry Smith'. I think he was.

Jonas Mekas (1922-2019), Lithuanian-born poet, philosopher and film-maker, set up film collectives, the Anthology Film Archive, published filmzines and made hundreds of films, all contributing to his title as 'the godfather of American avant-garde cinema'. He emigrated to America after escaping from a forced labour camp in Germany in 1945.

Listeners: Amy Taubin

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for "Film Comment" magazine and "Sight and Sound" magazine. Her book, "Taxi Driver", was published in 2000 in the British Film Institute's Film Classics series. Her chapter on "America: The Modern Era" is part of "The Critics Choice" published by Billboard Press, 2001, and her critical essays are included in many anthologies, mostly recently in "Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank" published by Scalo.

She wrote for "The Village Voice" weekly from 1987 into 2001 both as a film and a television critic. She also wrote a column for the "Village Voice" titled "Art and Industry" which covered American independent filmmaking. Her first weekly film criticism job was at the "SoHo Weekly News". Her writing has also appeared in "Art Forum", the "New York Times", the "New York Daily News", the "LA Weekly", "Millennium Film Journal", "US Harpers Bazaar" and many other magazines. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Online.

She started her professional life as an actress, appearing most notably on Broadway in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and in avant-garde films, among them Michael Snow's "Wavelength", Andy Warhol's "Couch", and Jonas Mekas' "Diaries, Notebooks and Sketches".

Her own avant-garde film, "In the Bag" (1981) is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Friends of Young Cinema Archives in Berlin.

She was the video and film curator of "The Kitchen" from 1983-1987.

She has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from N.Y.U. in cinema studies. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts in both the undergraduate and the MFA graduate programs, and lectures frequently at museums, media centers, and academic institutions. In 2003, she received the School of Visual Arts' art historian teaching award.

Tags: Bowery, Anthology, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Smith, Gregory Corso, Barbara Rubin, William Burroughs, Robert Frank

Duration: 3 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 29 September 2010